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Minister Varadkar urges cross-party support for mandatory breath test law

23 - 03 - 2011

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Speech by the Minister for Transport, Tourism & Sport Leo Varadkar TD on the Road Traffic Bill 2011 in the Dáil on 23rd March
 
This is the first piece of legislation being introduced by the new Government and indicates its commitment to road safety. Speaking on behalf of the Government, the House can be assured of our on-going commitment to make Irish roads even safer over the course of the next five years. 
 
The House will be aware that the first ever recorded fatality as a consequence of a road traffic accident occurred in Ireland over a hundred years ago and since then thousands of people have lost their lives on our roads. 
 
Improving Road Safety has been one of the great successes of recent years and I’d like to recognise the contribution made by my forebears, Noel Dempsey and Martin Cullen, the opposition spokespeople who co-operated with them, the civil servants who supported them, the Road Safety Authority and the campaign groups who kept the pressure on. 
 
Deaths as a consequence of road traffic accidents are half what they were ten years ago yet there are many more cars on the road. However, there is no room for complacency and I am greatly disturbed by the increase in road deaths in the year to date. Forty nine people were killed on the road in the first two and half months of 2011, 15 more than the same period last year. 
 
The Bill that I am moving today was approved by the Seanad in January and was due to be introduced in this House before its dissolution on 1st February. As with most issues related to road safety, the Bill enjoyed support from all sections of the political spectrum and it contains the same provisions introduced by my predecessor.
 
This Bill, following its enactment, will allow for the early introduction of significant provisions in road traffic legislation to support and reinforce the existing drink driving enforcement regime. The obvious incompatibility between alcohol and driving has been discussed a number of times in this House, as has the need to communicate to those drivers who persist in drinking and driving that such behaviour will no longer be tolerated.
 
The provisions of this Bill will further communicate that message. Drivers, who in the opinion of the Garda Síochána, have consumed intoxicating liquor and drivers, who are involved in collisions where injury is caused, will be required to undertake preliminary breath tests with the enactment of this Bill.
 
Since 2001, Ireland has seen a rapid improvement in road safety with fatalities down by 48%, following the implementation of a comprehensive set of road safety measures. In 2007, the year the current Road Safety Strategy was published, 338 people lost their lives on Irish roads. Last year, that figure was reduced to 212.
 
The on-going advancement in road safety performance results from the response of the Oireachtas to supporting road safety initiatives through the promotion and support of legislation and the formation of a cohesive policy structure under the Road Safety Strategies. The current Strategy developed by the Road Safety Authority and covering the period 2007 to 2012, has been the trigger for many of the major provisions contained in the Road Traffic Act 2010 and those being debated here today.
         
This Bill is the seventh major legislative initiative that has been taken on traffic law in the past decade. 
The legislative progression during that time has seen the introduction of the fixed charge and penalty points systems, a new structure of speed limits based on metric values, the introduction of Mandatory Alcohol Testing checkpoints, the establishment of the Road Safety Authority, the introduction of the mutual recognition of driving disqualifications between this country and the UK and, most recently, the rollout of a network of privately operated safety cameras.
 
This year will also see the introduction of lower Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) levels for drivers and preliminary impairment testing by An Garda Síochána for drug driving enforcement.  I expect this to come into force in September.
 
Ongoing initiatives such as safety cameras have had a significant and very positive influence on road user culture in Ireland. It is fair to say that our roads have, without question, become increasingly safe for all users in recent years.
 
Despite the significant gains in recent years, it remains unacceptable that so many people should still die on our roads in this way. It has never been more important for all of us to ensure that complacency does not now set in. This new Bill will help us to keep people safe on our roads.
 
I would now like to turn to the specific provisions being promoted in this Bill.
 
Like my predecessor, I am anxious that the necessary legislation be put in place as quickly as possible, to provide for the mandatory breath testing at collision sites where injury is caused. Once in place, no driver can avoid being tested for alcohol intoxication where serious road collisions occur. 
This legislation will also serve a dual purpose by sending a strong message to all drivers who still contemplate the notion of drinking and driving.
 
This Bill allows for the bringing forward of consolidated provisions relating to the obligation to provide a preliminary breath specimen that are planned for commencement later this year under the Road Traffic Act 2010.
 
New Evidential Breath Testing instruments will be necessary to measure the lower blood alcohol concentration levels provided for in the 2010 Act.
 
The Medical Bureau of Road Safety is well advanced in procuring the new Evidential Breath Testing equipment for detecting and measuring the lower levels of BAC. A successful tenderer designate has been selected, subject to the conclusion of contract under the terms and conditions of the tender.  A significant amount of testing is now required by the MBRS before the instruments can be put to use.
 
A detailed training programme for the Garda Síochána in the use of the instruments will also be undertaken. It is estimated that the testing and training programme will be complete and instruments distributed to Garda Stations in the Autumn.
 
Section 9 of the 2010 Act provides for the mandatory breath testing of a driver who, in the opinion of a member of An Garda Síochána has consumed intoxicating liquor, or has been involved in a road traffic collision which has resulted in an injury.
 
Section 14 of the 2010 Act, which is linked with section 9, provides for the mandatory testing of a driver of a vehicle involved in a road traffic collision where the driver is injured and is removed to hospital. This Section also provides that a member of An Garda Síochána shall test that driver in the hospital unless, following consultation with a doctor treating the driver, such testing would be prejudicial to the person’s health.
 
There is a close inter-relationship in the 2010 Act between sections 9 and 14 and the provisions in the Act for the lower BAC levels. Based on legal advice received by my Department, it will not be possible because of this link to commence sections 9 and 14, either in part or in their entirety until the new evidential breath testing apparatus, of which I spoke earlier, is in place. I consider it would be beneficial if the mandatory testing provisions were introduced earlier than that.
 
This Bill, therefore, provides for the early introduction of those provisions. 
 
On previous occasions the question has been asked as to why there is no provision to test drivers involved in all road traffic collisions. The main reason is that, in many instances, the collisions result in material damage to vehicles only, are generally minor in nature and are settled by the drivers concerned and their insurers without Garda involvement as a civil matter. The gardaí are often not called to the scene and when they are, it is often an inappropriate use of garda time and resources. 
 
The issue of mandatory testing of drivers at collision sites was the subject of much debate during the passage of the 2010 Road Traffic Act. 
 
It was acknowledged during that process that road traffic legislation, particularly the provisions relating to intoxicated driving, is one of the most challenged in our courts. This necessitates that the drafting process of any new legislation must also focus on making the provisions as robust as possible.
 
Consequently, we are all acutely aware of the need to strike a balance between the practicalities of the mandatory testing provision and the need for any changes to be consistent with existing intoxicated driving legislation. 
While the 2010 Act was being drafted, there was a concerted effort made to consolidate all intoxicated driving legislation into a cohesive format that would be robust enough to withstand any future challenges. In this context, it was important that the mandatory testing provision was knitted into the fabric of this legislation. 
 
Legal advice was sought on the relevant drafting of the Bill before us today, given its association with so many other vital provisions in the Road Traffic Acts. In providing for mandatory testing, we did not want for some oversight to undermine the entire testing regime and undo all that we are trying to achieve.
 
Indeed, it is because of that detailed examination of the likely impact on other provisions that, following the advice of the Office of the Attorney General, sections 2 and 3 of this Bill also recognise the powers of arrest conferred by law on An Garda Síochána and the interaction between those provisions and the requirement for preliminary breath testing of drivers. This necessary and explicit clarification will avoid any possible undermining of those provisions when introducing mandatory testing.
 
This clarification will also need to be reflected in the related intoxicated provisions of the 2010 Act. I intend to commence all of the intoxicated driving provisions of the 2010 Act later this year.  
Accordingly, I plan to amend sections 9 and 14 of the 2010 Act in a new Road Traffic (No. 2) Bill 2011 to be drafted and introduced in the Oireachtas soon. This will ensure that all the necessary initiatives will come on stream together. 
 
To conclude, the key determinant of road safety performance is the behaviour of road users. Consequently, the primary focus of our Road Safety Strategy is positively to influence that behaviour. 
 
This can be attained through initiatives across a range of areas including the enactment and enforcement of laws that promote good road user behaviour. Such laws must also be underpinned and supported by the application of fines, prison sentences and driving disqualifications as well as the necessary technological resources.
This Bill is yet another element of that overall programme and will, without doubt, build on those achievements in recent years. It will help to deliver additional improvements to the manner in which all drivers interact with our road system. 
 
I am anxious, with your cooperation, to secure the passage of this short Bill through the House as quickly as possible so as to allow for the early introduction of the provisions contained.  
 
Any suggestions made by Deputies will be afforded detailed consideration within my Department with a view for their inclusion, if appropriate, in the next Road Traffic Bill, which I plan to introduce shortly.
 
I look forward to the cooperation of Deputies in facilitating the speedy passage of this Bill and I commend the Bill to the House.
 
Ends
 
Further Information: Press Office Department of Transport: (01) 6041090
Nick Miller 086 6992080

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